A Critical Take on Psychical Research

Open your Mind written on the road

This extended review was among the last things David Fontana wrote. Here David provides a critical response to a sceptical book on parapsychology.


Jonathan C. Smith

Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 410 pp.,   £23.99, p/b – ISBN 978-1-4051-8122-8

On page 262 of Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal the author quotes a complaint from a recent book by Irwin and Watt to the effect that mainstream science is ‘inflexible’, ‘deceitful’ and ‘prejudiced’ when it comes to the question of parapsychology.  I can understand the reasons for this complaint, and I have no doubt that Irwin and Watt are able to justify it.  But I would like to add to it another complaint, namely that mainstream scientists typically evidence a limited and mostly inaccurate knowledge of parapsychology and of psychical research in general.  I have no problem with limited and inaccurate knowledge.  We are all of us woefully limited and inaccurate in our knowledge of many areas of scholarship outside our own subject specialisations.  The exponential growth of academic information means that most scientists have great difficulty in keeping up to date in their own field, let alone unrelated areas.    But a problem arises when limited and inaccurate knowledge is presented as if it is expertise, a problem frequently demonstrated by those sceptics who attack parapsychology and other areas of psychical research.  This being so, I turned to Jonathan Smith’s book with great interest.  Here was someone who, in the words of the blurb, ‘provides readers with a highly original, engaging, and clear-headed approach for analysing paranormal claims and distinguishing science from pseudoscience  … [and who] encourages readers to question “fearlessly and honestly”’.  The book also comes with four ringing endorsements, one of which tells us that ‘Smith has produced a highly readable and very entertaining yet critical examination of virtually the entire gamut of paranormal claims, and he demonstrates an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field in doing so    .’

With these various statements in mind (particularly the reference to ‘an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field’), I expected to find a full statement of the sceptic’s case against parapsychology based upon an extensive and concise appraisal of all the best evidence that parapsychology and psychical research have to offer, taking in not only contemporary research but some of the best instances from previous decades (good science does not ignore relevant material from the past simply because it is from the past).  I also expected to find a book that made a careful distinction between scientific approaches to the paranormal and the approaches of those on the fringe areas of the subject.  Far too often sceptics attack psychical research by selecting for odium what we might call worst-case instances from these fringe areas (we see a somewhat similar approach when it comes to sceptical attacks upon religion), i.e. instances of those practices and beliefs to which in fact no serious parapsychologist or psychical researcher would subscribe.  They conclude their attacks by implying that since they have dismissed these worst-case instances they have, ipso facto, dismissed the whole subject of the paranormal.

Were the expectations with which I turned to the book realised?  Sadly no.   Perhaps the cover, with its representations of a witch on her broomstick, a UFO, a ghost, the Tai Chi emblem, the Om symbol, a bent spoon, and a tombstone should have alerted me to the fact that this was unlikely to be a book that offered a balanced critique of the best scientific evidence for the paranormal, as indeed proved to be the case.  Rather than attempting to offer such a critique, its intention is to show that any and every form of belief in the paranormal, whether based on laboratory evidence or on spontaneous cases, does not stand up to scientific analysis.  We are even told that all those who accept the reality of the paranormal (I quote from the concluding chapter) ‘can be sorted into two groups, [those who] harbour one or two isolated beliefs and are quite willing to apply critical thinking skills, and [those who] display something of … a suspension of or hostility to critical thinking, combined with a willingness and eagerness to embrace a wide range of paranormal claims’.  There is no room therefore, for those who, instead of harbouring only isolated beliefs, apply critical thinking skills to paranormal claims and conclude that they are supported by the findings on which they are based.  When it comes to believers in the paranormal you can only, for Professor Smith, have losers not winners.  No room for example for Carl Jung, who insisted, on the basis not only of the literature but of his personal experiences, that the ‘faculties of the psyche are not confined entirely to time and space … only ignorance denies these facts … it is quite evident that they do exist, and have existed always’ (Jung 1959).

This dismissal of what Jung called ‘these faculties’ of the mind by Professor Smith could be taken seriously if it was based upon a thorough examination of the scientific evidence concerned.    Unfortunately it is not, and I come back again to the fact that sceptics tend either to be unaware of this evidence, or to choose to ignore it.  Let me give some examples of this from the book, starting with parapsychological research.  Such research dates back to the founding of the first parapsychology laboratory by Professor William McDougall at Duke University in 1927.  Led by J. B. and Louisa Rhine, the laboratory not only established a methodology for the scientific research of psychic abilities, it produced a steady stream of positive results, chronicled by the Rhines in a series of books and research papers.  The pioneering work of the Rhines established parapsychology as an academic if controversial discipline, yet Smith dismisses their work on the grounds that ‘researchers discount the first decade of Rhine’s work with Zener cards.  Stimulus leakage or cheating could account for all his findings.  Slight indentations on the backs of cards revealed the symbols embossed on card faces.  Subjects could see and hear the experimenter … The psi effect would mysteriously disappear whenever a magician was present in the Rhine laboratory’.    Anyone familiar with Rhine’s research who comes across these words is bound to wonder why Smith chooses to present such a partial view of Rhine’s work.  Firstly, let us take stimulus leakage.  Throughout the first decade of his research Rhine progressively tightened his protocols specifically to avoid any possibility that subjects could see the backs of cards.  In the DT (‘Down Through’) protocol used by him the cards would be called by the subject without any of them being removed from the pack until the whole run of calls had been completed.  Another method was to place an opaque screen in front of the cards so that the subject could not even see their backs.  In yet other experiments the subject and the investigator were placed at some distance from each other, in different rooms and even in different buildings.  Significant results were obtained under all these conditions

In fact the Pratt-Woodruff experiment conducted by Rhine in 1939 were expressly designed to see if results above chance could still be obtained when safeguards were set up against (in Rhine’s words) all the ‘counter hypotheses that have been suggested’ by critics during the first decade.  Referring to the Pratt-Woodruff experiment Rhine tells us that ‘in the entire history of psychology no experiment has ever been carried out with such elaborate controls against all possible errors’.  The results of the experiment produced odds against chance in the order of one in a million, and even writing 14 years later Rhine insists that ‘There has thus far been no reasonable criticism made of this experiment and no call for a further improvement on its controls’ (Rhine 1954).  It may be that Smith has reasons, after taking account of this and other Rhine experiments, to continue his claims of sensory leakage and fraud, but if so many readers may think it odd that he does not give the details of how this leakage could have occurred given the controls in place at the time.  In fact Professor Smith only references Rhine’s early 1934 book, Extra-Sensory Perception, and ignores his publications detailing his later work, including three major books in which he takes pains to detail how all the objections put forward by critics were met (Rhine 1937, 1948, 1954).  Smith is also silent on Louise Rhine’s three important books (Rhine L. 1961, 1967, 1977) and on Pratt’s 1977 first-hand account of working with Rhine on some of the most significant Rhine experiments.  If sceptics wish to continue with attacks on Rhine, then the least we can expect is that they do so by presenting a comprehensive account of his work.

What of Smith’s charge that the ‘psi effects would mysteriously disappear whenever a magician was present in the Rhine laboratory’?  Rhine specifically tells us that when working with Hubert Pearce, one of his most successful subjects, ‘the well-known’ magician Wallace Lee accepted the invitation to be present.  ‘Not only did Lee generously admit that he saw no way in which Pearce might be employing sensory cues, but when invited to do so he tried to duplicate Pearce’s results under identical conditions and without success … and confessed that Pearce’s results mystified him’ (Rhine 1937).

What of more recent work in parapsychology?  Here Professor Smith’s approach seems to be to ignore most of the carefully controlled studies that have yielded positive findings.  For example, he makes no reference to the work of the Koestler Unit at Edinburgh University.  And the only mention he makes of Professor Bob Morris, who headed the Unit from 1985 until his early death in 2004 and authored and co-authored over 100 research papers and two books, is to an early 1978 paper written by Morris with William Roll and Keith Harary on Out of the Body Experiences or OBEs (incidentally neglecting to mention the success of the experiment to which the paper refers, and which is detailed in Duncan and Roll 1995).

While on the subject of OBEs, Smith claims that ‘There is no evidence [that] … perhaps floating above the body one can see objects deliberately hidden in the ceiling’.   I’m not sure about the practicality of hiding objects actually in the ceiling, but Smith’s claim suggests he is unaware of Professor Charles Tart’s ground-breaking experiment at the University of California at Davis in 1968 in which a subject, under appropriate controls and in the university sleep laboratory, was able to induce an OBE and read a five-figure random number placed near the ceiling and out of her sight correctly at the first reading, with odds of 100,000 to one against her success being due to chance (Tart 1968).    Which brings me to Professor Smith’s references to work in an area allied to OBEs, namely Near Death Experiences (NDEs), and the surprise here is that no mention is made of studies by medical doctors Peter Fenwick (Fenwick and Fenwick 1996), Sam Parnia (Parnia 2005) and Bruce Greyson (Greyson 2003), and of earlier work by medical doctors Martin Sabom (Sabom 1982) and Melvin Morse (Morse and Perry 1990).  A brief mention is made of Dr. Pim Van Lommel, (van Lommel et al 2001) whose positive findings on NDEs were published in Lancet (a prestigious medical journal), but only to list some of the factors in his patients that did not correlate with the presence of NDEs.  Readers familiar with the medical literature on NDEs will also be surprised by Smith’s reference to Susan Blackmore, in preference to any of the above medical doctors, as ‘perhaps the leading serious expert on NDEs’ (a statement predictably followed by a quote from Susan to the effect that ‘NDEs provide no evidence for life after death’).   In addition to the omission of any reference to the specific medical evidence for NDEs, Professor Smith also ignores the testimonies of those who have actually had NDEs (see e.g. Fenwick and Fenwick 2008 for case studies).  Do these testimonies not count as evidence?  Are only those who have neither worked medically with NDE patients nor experienced NDEs themselves qualified to count as ‘serious experts’?

There are many other criticisms one can make of the way in which the book deals with parapsychology.  Why is there no mention of the work of Professor Robert Jahn and his colleagues, formerly of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Unit (PEAR) at Princeton University, on direct mental interaction with computers (e.g. Jahn and Dunn 2005)?  Why is the work of Rupert Sheldrake (e.g. Sheldrake 2003) and of Marilyn Schlitz (Wiseman and Schlitz 1997) on the staring effect omitted?  Why is there no reference to Spottiswoode’s finding that a survey of all positive parapsychological experiments worldwide showed that successful results significantly peaked at 13.30 hours sidereal time (Spottiswoode 1997), surely a finding objective enough to interest even the most rigorous sceptic?

Turning to neurophysiological correlates of psi, Smith does concede that some of the work ‘has been promising’, but then glosses over this with the comment that the studies concerned have ‘not been accepted by the mainstream scientific community, partly because of pervasive scepticism concerning the quality of journals that typically accept such research’.  This comment is likely to enrage parapsychologists.  Despite the fact that mainstream parapsychological research uses stricter experimental controls such as double-blind techniques than many other areas of science, well researched and well presented papers reporting this research are simply not welcomed by the editors of orthodox science journals.  Judged on the strength of hostility towards their subject matter rather than on the quality of their scholarship, they are routinely rejected.  Thus we have a vicious circle of rejection by journals leading to the rejection of parapsychology, and the rejection of parapsychology leading to rejection by journals.  No subject can flourish in the face of determined and unwarranted bias by the editors of ‘quality’ publications.   As scientists, we should judge research by its methodology, the quality of its controls, the integrity of its authors, the nature of its results and the strength of its conclusions, not on preconceived ideas as to the reality or otherwise of the subject with which it is dealing or even, provided peer reviewing by knowledgeable referees is involved, on the supposed status of the journals in which it is published.

Before leaving the subject of parapsychology it is worth briefly mentioning two other points.  Professor Smith refers to Dean Radin’s report that a meta-analysis of the 96 published studies into dice-throwing experiments investigating mind over matter produced positive results with odds against chance exceeding three million to one, and that it would require the existence of 17,974 unpublished ‘file drawer’ studies (i.e. studies that are filed and forgotten due to their insignificant results) to reduce these odds to chance level (Radin 1997).  Smith argues that Radin’s calculations are incorrect, and that only 60 unpublished results would be necessary to produce this reduction.  What Smith fails to say that there is no evidence of any high incidence of relevant ‘file drawer’ studies, and that such studies are in any case likely to be far fewer in parapsychology than in other areas of science, since parapsychology is the one scientific subject that actively encourages insignificant results not to lie in file drawers but to be published in parapsychological journals in the interests of obtaining a fair overall picture of the reality or otherwise of paranormal phenomena.  Moreover, if we are expected to accept Smith’s figures and assume that there is indeed a ratio as high as two insignificant and unpublished ‘file drawer’ studies on dice throwing experiments to every three published significant studies, then we would also have to assume that a much higher ratio even than this exists in other areas of science, where insignificant results rarely find their way into print.  If so, this assumption casts serious doubt on the validity of much of modern science.

The second point relates to Smith’s criticisms of the remote viewing experiments carried out at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) as part of the government funded Stargate Project in the USA.  The basis for these criticisms is that stimulus leakage (lax controls by experiments that enabled subjects to get to know by normal means the remote locations they were supposed to be ‘viewing’ psychically) plus what he calls ‘a distressing number of additional problems’ could account for all the positive results.  He claims in addition that ‘Occasional [remote viewing successes] could have been chance occurrences’.  What he fails to tell us is that at the conclusion of the Project in 1995 the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency, which had been responsible for some of the funding) commissioned a review of the remote viewing research carried out at SAIC, which incidentally had been supervised by a committee of experts including a Nobel laureate physicist, statisticians, psychologists, neuroscientists, astronomers and military personnel (McMoneagle 2002).  The principal authors of the Review were Dr. Jessica Utts, a statistician from the University of California at Davis, and Dr. Ray Hyman a psychologist and arch-sceptic from the University of Oregon.  Reporting on the findings scrutinised by the Review, Dr. Utts wrote that ‘It is clear to this author that anomalous cognition [i.e. remote viewing] is possible and has been demonstrated … on commonly accepted scientific criteria.  No-one who has examined all the data … has been able to suggest methodological or statistical problems to explain the ever-increasing and consistent results to date’.  In his section of the Review Dr. Ray Hyman agreed with Utts that ‘… the effect sizes reported in the SAIC experiments … probably cannot be dismissed as due to chance … The SAIC experiments are well-designed and the investigators have taken pains to eliminate the known weaknesses in previous parapsychological research … I cannot provide suitable candidates for what flaws, if any, might be present’ (in other words I can’t find anything wrong with the research).

If Professor Smith has read this CIA-commissioned Review it seems odd that he makes no reference to it.  If he has not read it, he must at least have seen the extracts published by Dean Radin in The Conscious Universe, which actually include the quotes I have just given from both Utts and Hyman, since he refers to Radin’s book in connection with Stargate and includes it in his References.  Why does he ignore the Report and leave the reader with the impression that nothing of real significance came out of the Stargate Project?

Space only allows me to look at one of the other areas criticised by Professor Smith, namely mediumship and survival.   Smith’s first reason for doubting that the material obtained through mediums supports the reality of survival of physical death is that ‘Super ESP’ (the ability of mediums to obtain information by reading the minds of the living or by clairvoyantly accessing it from the environment) may be responsible for this information rather than the minds of the deceased.  He omits to say that if Super ESP is responsible rather than the minds of the deceased this would still be strong evidence for the reality of the paranormal, and also that effective arguments against Super ESP as opposed to communications from the deceased as an explanation for all significant material received through mediums have been fully rehearsed ever since the Super ESP suggestion was first put forward.  The same point applies to one of Smith’s criticisms of Gary Schwartz’s research into mediumship on the grounds of ‘difficulties of differentiating claimed communications of a deceased person from those of spirit guides, angels, other-wordly entities, space aliens, the Universal Intelligence, God, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster’.  As with Super ESP, demonstrably authentic communications from any of these non-physical entities (with the exception of the parody figure of the Flying Spaghetti Monster), would still support the reality of the paranormal.

Professor Smith’s second reason for doubting the evidence for survival has to do with the unreliability of mediumship itself.  He makes no mention of the work of outstanding mediums from the past such as Leonora Piper, Gladys Leonard and Eileen Garrett, but instead attacks the weak controls used in current research into mediumship, arguing that medium and sitter should be prevented from seeing each other, that possible stimulus leakage should be avoided, that negative results should not be discarded, that fraud should be guarded against and that under these controlled conditions mediums should produce several readings for different individuals, each of whom should then select those that relate to them personally.  It would seem from this that Smith is unfamiliar with the detailed and extensive work of Professor Archie Roy and physicist Patricia Robertson, which employed all these controls and still found that the sample of sitters did correctly select the messages actually intended for them, with odds against chance of a million to one. Even if the statistics are re-worked using a different methodology, the odds against chance still remain impressively high, and lend a high level of credibility to mediumship.  Yet far from mentioning the Roy and Robertson studies (e.g. Roy and Robertson 2001), Smith refers only to a small investigation by O’Keefe and Wiseman, using only five mediums (we are not told how selected), in which ‘The sitters were unable to identify readings that applied to them’.  Interestingly, the paper by O’Keefe and Wiseman was published by the prestigious British Journal of Psychology.  Drawing on my experience as a former Editorial Board member of the BJP I am bound to contrast the readiness with which this flagship journal of British Psychology accepted the O’Keefe and Wiseman paper and its negative results, with the indifference shown by it and other mainstream psychology journals to the positive results reported in Roy and Robertson’s much more extensive study.

Perhaps Professor Smith’s reason for ignoring the work of Roy and Robertson is that it appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, a journal that he maybe classes as one of those that attracts ‘pervasive scepticism’ as to quality.  Certainly he seems to think poorly of the Society for Psychical Research itself, given that he claims that 130 years after the founding of the Society ‘most scientists’ might well agree that (quoting Professor Henry Sidgwick out of context) psychical research investigators could be accused of ‘either lying or cheating or of a blindness or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition except absolute idiocy’.  Professor Smith may be pleased to know that in over 40 years of working with serious psychical research investigators at the SPR and elsewhere I have met no-one afflicted by such distressing moral or mental failings.  He might also be pleased to know that when it comes to considerations of moral and mental stability, the Society for Psychical Research has in its history numbered among its members twelve Nobel Prize winners, numerous Fellows of the Royal Society (some of whom have served as its President) including Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge and Lord Rayleigh, two British Prime Ministers (Gladstone and Balfour), eminent psychologists such as both Freud and Jung, philosophers as notable as William James, Henri Bergson, Henry Sidgwick and C. D. Broad, and a long list of eminent literary figures.

Having claimed that ‘many scientists’ may question the moral and mental health of psychical investigators, Professor Smith goes on to dismiss the SPR by quoting two studies by SPR members in which the investigators were deceived by fraud.  He omits to mention that both these studies took place over a century ago, and in the days before the SPR devised and implemented many of the controls against deception that helped transform psychical research into the legitimate undertaking that it is today.  He also omits to mention that in its 130 year history the Society has (I quote from the statement at the front of the Society’s journal) ‘published an impressive body of evidence for the … occurrence of paranormal phenomena’.   It seems odd that Professor Smith should prefer to ignore this evidence in favour of references to two studies that took place in the infancy of the Society more than a hundred years ago.

Now to turn to more positive matters.  The most valuable feature of this book is the guidance it gives on reality testing, i.e. appraising evidence by subjecting it to the appropriate tools of critical thinking.  What is said on this subject is admirably presented and draws upon Professor Smith’s extensive experience as a teacher of critical thinking at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  It should be read by all those interested or involved in some of the fringe areas of the paranormal (Professor Smith refers specifically to areas such as astrology, faith healing, psychic surgery and alternative medicine) where many practitioners have little in the way of serious medical or scientific qualifications.  But it would be a mistake to suppose that the eminent scientists who have engaged in psychical research over the last decades, and the modern university-based parapsychologists such as those with doctoral and post-doctoral training from the Koestler Unit at Edinburgh University, are not well aware of, and make full and consistent use of these appropriate tools of critical thinking and the rigorous research methods associated with them.  Which brings me to my final point.  In addressing psychical research and parapsychology Professor Smith seems to have relied to a large extent upon secondary sources rather than upon the extensive psychical research and parapsychological literature.  For example one of the authorities he quotes most frequently in support of his views is Robert Carroll’s Sceptics Dictionary web site, and the book of the same name.  I have no wish to criticise the Sceptics Dictionary, which is a mine of information on the sceptic’s perspective, but with little more than 500 entries the Sceptics Dictionary can hardly be expected to go into any of the topics it covers in great detail.  It is more an introduction for those who want the sceptical view than an exhaustive – and impartial – survey and analysis of the evidence for the paranormal or of the literature in which the best of this evidence is presented.

In conclusion, this book will be very useful to those unfamiliar with the tools of critical thinking, and will be welcomed by those sceptics who rely on secondary sources written primarily by other sceptics rather than on the psychical research literature.  However, those who know this literature and accept the evidence it presents will be left thinking that if this book really is (I quote again from one of the endorsements) a ‘critical examination of virtually the entire gamut of paranormal claims, and [the author] demonstrates an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field in doing so.’ by a leading sceptic, then there is even less to fear from scepticism than they might have supposed.


Duncan, L. and Roll, W. (1995).  Psychic Connections.  New York: Delacourt Press/Bantam Doubleday.

Fenwick, P. and Fenwick, E. (1995).  The Truth in the Light.  London: Headline/Hodder.

Fenwick, P. and Fenwick, E.  (2008).  The Art of Dying.  London: Continuum.

Greyson, B. (2003).  Incidence and correlates of near-death experiences on a coronary care unit.  General Hospital Psychiatry.  25, 269-276.

Jahn, R. G. and Dunne, B. J. (2005).  Consciousness, Information and Living Systems.  Cellular and Molecular Biology. 51, 703-714.

Jung. C. G. (1959).  Interview with John Freeman, BBC Face to Face Programme.

McMoneagle, J. (2002).  The Stargate Chronicles.  Charlottesville VA: Hampton Roads.

Morse, M. and Perry, M. (1990).  Closer to the Light.  New York: Villard Books, London: Souvenir Press.

Parnia, S. (2005).  What Happens When We Die.  London: Hay House.

Pratt, J. G.  (1977).  Parapsychology: An Insider’s View of Extra Sensory Perception.  New York: Scarecrow Press.

Radin, D. (1997).  The Conscious Universe.  San Francisco: HarperEdge.

Rhine, J. B. (1937).  New World of the Mind.  New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Rhine, J. B. (1948).  The Reach of the Mind.  London: Faber & Faber.

Rhine, J. B. (1954).  New Frontiers of the Mind.  London: Faber & Faber

Rhine, L. E.   (1961).  Hidden Channels of the Mind.  New York: William Morrow.

Rhine, L. E.  (1967).  ESP in Life and Lab.  New York:  William Morrow.

Rhine, L. E.   Mind Over Matter.  New York:  William Morrow.

Roy, A. and Robertson, P. (2001).  A double-blind procedure to assessing the relevance of a medium’s statement to a recipient.  Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 65.3, 864, 161-174.

Sabom, M. (1982).  Recollections of Death.  London: Harper & Row.

Sheldrake, R. The Sense of Being Stared at and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind.  London: Hutchinson.

Spottiswoode, J. (1997).  Association between effect size in free anomalous cognition and local sidereal time.  Journal of Scientific Exploration 11, 2, 109-122.

Tart, C. (1968).  A psychophysiological study of out-of-the-body experiences in a selected subject.  Journal of the American SPR 62, 3-27.

van Lommel, P., van Wees, R, Meyers, V. and Elfferich, I. (2001).  Near death experiences in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands.  Lancet 358, 2042.

Wiseman, R. and Schlitz, M. (1997).  Experimenter effects and the remote detection of Staring.  Journal of Parapsychology 61, 197-207.

David Fontana was the author of ‘Is There an Afterlife?’ and ‘Beyond Death’.  He was a professor of psychology and former President of the Society for Psychical Research.